“What the hell was that?” Paige asked as soon as they were back in the safety of Nick’s car.
He didn’t answer her right away, giving her time to wonder why, of all the questions rotating through her brain, that was the one she asked first. It wasn’t entirely clear what she was asking, though she knew Nick understood her meaning.
“Sometimes you have to bend the truth a little to get your foot in the door.”
Or maybe he didn’t.
“That’s not what I was talking about, but now I know why you get all the good stories. Lies and charm. Whatever works, I guess.”
Nick glanced over at her, the smirk on his face telling her he had no qualms about what he did. It made Paige wonder if she really cared, either. Would the Wrights have spoken to them without Nick’s little story? Probably not.
“What made you ask them about their relationship? How did you know they were together that night?”
Nick shrugged. “It was mostly just a hunch. The timing of their relationship seemed pretty sketchy. Once we got there, it was the way Mrs. Wright looked at her husband and the guilt written all over her face when we started talking about Abby. I didn’t see her confession coming, though.”
“Me neither,” Paige admitted. “How did she live with herself all these years? Not only did she hook up with her best friend’s boyfriend, but the last thing her friend saw before she died was the two people she loved the most betraying her. I couldn’t even imagine doing something like that to Taylor, let alone going on to live happily ever after with the guy.”
“Eh, I’m thinking that marriage is a little less happily ever after and a little more of a ‘you knocked up my teenage daughter’ requirement.”
Paige laughed. “Thirty years is quite the punishment.”
“They’ve obviously made the best of it. They might even actually love each other now, but in the beginning, theirs was a shotgun wedding if I’ve ever seen one.”
Paige let the conversation lapse as she watched the scenery pass by in a flash. In the silence her brain started taking stock of what little they knew and all of the things they didn’t. She had no idea how they would find the answers she needed. Knowing what happened that night and whether the Wrights were happily married did little to help her figure out why Abby’s camera was in her grandpa’s attic.
She really hoped Nick had some great ideas on what to do next because she was at a loss. Granted, she wasn’t an investigative reporter, so her list of ideas was definitely a hell of a lot shorter than his probably was. But she was a quick study and knew why he was drawn to this line of work. Paige bet it was even more exciting digging into a mystery when it wasn’t personal.
Her stomach churned. So many things about this mystery were unclear, except for the fact that she wasn’t going to like the big reveal. Which made her wonder why in the hell she was still hunting for the truth. Before she could go too deep into questioning her motives, Nick was pulling into his parking spot and turning off the car.
“So where do we go from here? Do you still want to pursue this now that you know your dad, grandpa, or Cal were camping that night with or near Abby and her friends?”
The look on Nick’s face told her he wouldn’t blame her if she wanted to quit while she was ahead. He obviously figured out she wouldn’t like the ending, probably sooner than she had. Realizing the awful truth of it all sent the acid in her stomach from a simmer to a rolling boil.
Paige needed to figure out what was more important. Protecting her family from the horrors of their past or finding out what really happened to a girl who was most likely killed by someone she loved. Whether it was an accident or not, they covered it up for thirty years, letting her family believe she was missing for days. Did they mean for her body to be found? Had that been a lucky break or intentional?
And after all this time, did it really matter?
Maybe that was the real question.
Who would benefit from the truth coming out? Her dad was dead, and her grandpa was in assisted living. Her mom and Cal obviously knew more than they wanted to admit. If her family truly was involved in Abby Foster’s death, the Reynolds family legacy would go from football greatness to the grim horrors of death.
Would knowing the truth help Abby’s family or friends? She had a feeling Farrah Wright would take it hard knowing that her betrayal sent her friend back into the woods to her death at the hands of a stranger. Would Eric feel any different about what happened? Paige couldn’t tell if he held onto any guilt from his part in Abby’s fate. Would that change if he knew that someone else was there that night?
In the end, Paige realized it didn’t matter how anyone else felt about what she uncovered. She needed to know the truth. She needed to know what her family was protecting and why they thought they had the right to keep the secret all these years. It didn’t matter if her family hated her once everything was said and done. She was basically an afterthought anyway. Ruining the family name would only give them a reason to stop thinking about her at all.
“We’ve come this far,” she said, with what she hoped was a smile on her face and not a grimace.
“Alright then, here’s what we need to do.”
After spending another half hour with Nick hashing out the start of their plan, Paige headed for her grandpa’s house to take another look in the attic. She didn’t really think there’d be much up there that would help with their investigation, but at the very least, she could grab the box the camera had been in. When they found the camera, neither Paige nor Taylor had given the bag much thought except to notice how very ’90’s it was. Now she wondered if maybe the camera and the bag weren’t the only things in the box that would shed some light on what happened the night Abby disappeared.
The sun was starting to set as she pulled into her grandpa’s driveway. Once her car was off, she sat there for a moment, staring up at the house. It still felt surreal that he wouldn’t be inside when she opened the door or that, soon, the house wouldn’t even belong to him. While her dad was still playing professionally, she’d practically grown up in the pale gray home, running around the halls despite her grandpa and whichever nanny was on duty telling her not to.
Shaking her head, she tried to block out the memories she’d made in a house that now felt tainted by the possibilities of her family’s secrets. Thinking about the rare good times with her family would only delay the inevitable. She needed to stay focused on the task at hand, not take an unwanted trip down memory lane.
After grabbing her purse and locking up her car, Paige let herself into the house using the key she’d had since she was eleven. She keyed in the code to disable the alarm, then locked the door behind her. Even though it wasn’t the first time she’d been there alone, it was still eerie standing in the foyer of the empty house.
The feeling was even worse once she was in the attic.
Nothing had changed since she had last been up there. The box she’d discovered Abby’s camera in was still on the floor next to the larger stack of boxes that she’d planned on going through before they’d gotten distracted. She probably should’ve come back during the week while they’d waited for the film to be developed, but she kept putting it off, though she had no idea why.
Had she just been procrastinating, or had her subconscious been trying to tell her something?
Either way, it didn’t really matter. She was there now, and there were still a lot of boxes to look through. Her eyes fell to the box at her feet, but she ignored that one for now. Pulling a box marked Patrick off the pile, she set it on the floor, then pulled the lid off.
Inside was more of the same memorabilia she’d seen over a week ago when she was there last. Paige had a feeling that most of the boxes labeled with her father’s name were exactly that. Bits and pieces of the past that touted Patrick Reynolds’s prowess as a football player, from the second he could hold a ball to the day he graduated college. She figured somewhere in the mess was stuff from his professional career as well, though a lot of that was also hanging in a room in her parent’s house. A space dedicated to a dead man.
By the time Paige finished going through five of the unlabeled boxes, she wondered if she was doing a whole lot of searching for a needle in a very large and disorganized haystack. She glanced at her phone to check the time and was surprised to see she’d only been there an hour. It sure felt like a hell of a lot longer than that.
Grabbing another box, she started to set it down in front of the chair she’d uncovered when the creaking of the floor somewhere else in the house had her stopping in her tracks. She started to shake it off as just the creaking of an old house when she heard it again, this time followed by a thunk.
“What the fuck?” she murmured as her heart rate picked up speed.
She set the box down on the chair, then moved over to the staircase to get another listen. For the longest time, all she could hear was herself breathing. Had she imagined the noises before? Was her imagination running away with her?
And then it happened again.
Sweat beaded along her upper lip. Was someone in the house with her? If so, why didn’t they announce themselves? Anyone with a key to the place would recognize her car in the driveway. They’d know she was there.
But maybe whoever was in the house wasn’t someone she knew.
Had she left the door unlocked? She could’ve sworn she locked it, but she had been a bit scatterbrained when she arrived. Was someone trying to rob her grandpa’s place while she was stuck in the attic?
Paige didn’t know what to do. Should she call out and announce she was there? Should she call someone? If she called the cops, and it was her imagination or someone in her family, she’d look like an idiot. Maybe she should call her mom and see if it was her in the house. Not that she really wanted to talk to her mom or explain why she was back in the attic. Maybe calling Taylor or Nick was the better option. Both of them were working, but one of them might be able to take her call and keep her from completely freaking out.
She tried Taylor first but wasn’t entirely surprised when the call went straight to voicemail. Given the time, she was either finishing up with work or on her way home. In both situations, she typically had her phone set to do not disturb, so she wouldn’t be distracted by it. Paige tried Nick next, but she hung up without leaving a message when it rang through to the voicemail. Odds were she’d imagined whatever she’d heard anyway. The last thing she wanted was proof that she was a crazy person.
It was probably just the wind or the old house settling. She had to keep telling herself that there was absolutely no one else in the house. She’d just allowed herself to be spooked by everything that was happening, and it was making her hear things. That had to be it.
Shoving her phone into her front pocket, Paige shook her head. She needed to get a grip and get back to the task at hand. There were still a ton of boxes to go through, with not a whole lot of time to do it in.
She returned to the box on the chair and pulled off the lid, planning to power through at least ten more boxes before heading home. With her arms elbow-deep in the box filled with her grandma’s sewing projects, Paige tried not to let her mind run wild. And it worked until her phone rang, scaring the crap out of her, sending her and the box’s contents falling to the floor.
“Son of a bitch.”
With her ass and pride bruised, she pulled her phone out of her pocket and swiped her finger across the screen.
“Hey, Paige, sorry I missed your call. The phone was in the other room. What’s up?”
Nick’s voice soothed her nerves, sending her racing heart back closer to its normal rhythm.
“Oh, you know, just trying to give myself a heart attack, that’s all,” she joked. “Being alone in this house, in this attic, with everything going on, is really doing a number on my imagination. I thought I heard someone downstairs, and in the heat of the moment, it seemed like a good idea to make the call. I didn’t leave a message because I didn’t think anyone else needed to know I was crazy, yet here I am, outing myself.”
Nick laughed, though she could tell he wasn’t laughing at her.
“Well, I’ve had my fair share of moments like that, so if you’re crazy, so am I,” he paused. “Let’s back up a second, though. Are you sure you’re imagining things?”
“Jeezus, Nick. That’s not why I called you.”
He sighed. “I know, but humor me here.”
“Fine. It’s not like I stormed downstairs to check the house or anything. There just haven’t been any other noises since right before I called you,” she shrugged even though he couldn’t see her. “I figured it was the house.”
Paige had been feeling okay about the situation before Nick called her back. Now she was back to wondering when the intruder was going to come upstairs and murder her. Maybe it was time she called it a night.
A crash from downstairs interrupted whatever Nick was about to say. Paige jumped, juggling her phone, as she yelped. She could hear Nick asking her what was happening, but she could barely keep her hand still long enough to bring her phone back to her ear.
“Paige, what the hell was that noise?”
“I…I…I don’t know,” she finally managed to get out. “It sounded like someone dropped something downstairs.”
“I think it’s time you get out of there. Keep me on the phone, and get the hell out of that house.”
Nick didn’t even bother trying to disguise the fear in his voice. Paige really wished he would’ve.
“I can’t go down there if someone’s down there,” she insisted.
“Yes, you can. Put me on speakerphone, and we’ll keep talking. Whoever’s there won’t risk doing anything with a witness on the line. I’ve got my other phone ready to call nine-one-one if something happens.”
“Your other phone?” Paige asked, happy for the minor distraction he was providing.
She did as he suggested and put her phone on speaker, then quickly surveyed the attic. Part of her wanted to pick up her grandma’s stuff, but she didn’t want to stick around any longer than she needed to. She’d take care of it next time…when she wasn’t alone, and it was daylight outside.
“I’ve got a work phone and a personal one. I can’t just give my personal number out to random informants. Some of those people truly are nuts.”
She laughed. “That makes sense. What happens if you accidentally give out the other number?”
“Then it’s more than just my crazy ex-girlfriends that can call me in the middle of the night,” he joked. “Are you in your car yet?”
“No, I had to grab my purse,” Paige told him as she allowed herself one more sweep of the room. Her gaze fell on the box that started everything. Something in her gut told her she needed to take it with her, and though her gut had gotten her into this mess, she knew she had to listen.
She threw her purse into the box, then set her phone on top of it. “I’m heading downstairs now.”
Did she say it louder than necessary? Hell yes, she did. She didn’t want to surprise whoever was down there. Maybe it wasn’t an ax-wielding murderer or a robber. There was still a chance it was someone from her family, and they had no idea she was even there.
“I’m on my way to your house now. I hope that’s okay.”
Paige wasn’t sure if Nick was just saying that for the benefit of whoever was there or because he was really on his way to her house. Either way, she was grateful.
“Bring some booze with you. I’m going to need it after this.”
He laughed, the sound a balm to her nerves. “Already on it.”
She took the stairs slowly, the box tucked under her left arm, while she held onto the railing. She sighed in relief when she reached the bottom and walked through the door. One floor down, one more to go, and she’d be home free.
They continued to talk, discussing everything and anything that didn’t involve someone trying to kill her or their investigation. She didn’t hear anything other than Nick’s voice filling the space around her. Even still, the tension in her shoulders didn’t abate. Not even when she reached the main floor.
“Alright, I’m almost out of here. I just need to lock up.”
Paige rounded the corner from the stairway to the second floor and stopped short. Lying on the floor in the foyer was the vase that normally sat on the table right inside the open front door. Whether she locked the door or not, she was one hundred percent sure she’d at least closed the door. And she knew without a doubt that the vase had been intact when she walked inside.
She needed to get the hell out of there pronto, but her keys were inside her purse, inside the box. With a sigh, she set it down on the side table, then dug her keys out, all while Nick continued to talk to her. Her hands shook so hard that she dropped the keys into the box more than once.
Finally, she got it together and was out of the house, the door locked behind her. She didn’t bother with the alarm. That could wait for another day. With another sigh of relief, she made her way to her car, feeling like she had dodged some kind of scary bullet. Until she saw the piece of paper sitting underneath one of her windshield wipers. Her stomach dropped, bile rising in her throat.
“Paige, are you okay?”
She shook her head, even though he still couldn’t see her. “There’s something on my car.”
Setting the box on the hood of her car, she reached for the item, hoping like hell it was just some random flyer. Her hand shook even more than it had before as she got a closer look at the piece of paper. It was folded in half and, based on the rough edges, had been ripped out of a notebook of some sort.
A product of convenience.
Something to scare her with.
And boy, was it working.
“Paige. What is it? What’s happening?”
“It’s a note,” she answered. She sounded breathless to her ears, and she wondered randomly how she sounded to Nick.
“What does it say?”
She took a deep breath, then unfolded the piece of paper. Her eyes focused on the hastily scrawled message. A whimper escaped her, along with the breath she’d held as she read the words out loud.